Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? … Inconsistency Rules — The Message And The Track — Plus Who’s Got That Cookie-Cutter Edge?

*Did You Notice?…* The “new” style of plate racing, pack or tandem isn’t catching on with fans at Talladega? Television ratings, out Tuesday, suffered a 5 percent year-to-year decline, down to 3.7 Nielsen number in a Chase that’s seen the lowest viewership in the history of the nine-year playoff format. Overall, a total of 5.113 million people tuned into the Talladega Demolition Derby (err, Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500) from their living rooms. That’s the lowest number _this century_ for the racetrack, spring or fall, when the race has been run on its scheduled date.

At-track attendance for NASCAR’s largest superspeedway was even worse – and possibly more alarming. 88,000 fans showed up Sunday, 16 percent less than last fall and a whopping 43 percent decline from the at-track audience five years ago. That’s right; back in the Fall of 2007, during the midst of Jeff Gordon vs Jimmie Johnson for the championship, the house was packed with 155,000 screaming fans.

With scenes like this one commonplace, can NASCAR rekindle the magic at Talladega?

Those numbers alone just cannot be explained by the economy, hotel gouging or SEC home games (which NASCAR used to whoop, by the way – how convenient is it to use your _own, normal competition_ as an excuse? What, in five years are we going to say NASCAR can’t run a race head-to-head against the local horseshoe tournament across the street? At some point, you have to just acknowledge the sport is losing ground.) So how do you fix the thinning crowd? I don’t have the solution in my pocket. But Step One is simply acknowledging the problem. Notice that no one at NASCAR, in the past 48 hours, has come out and said Sunday’s race and its finish showcase a need for major changes. If anything, they’ve applauded the status quo while turning their attention to Texas testing for 2013, the rest of the Chase and other big-ticket items.

What do you say to that other than the words, “What a shame”? And how low will attendance get at Talladega before something gets done? At this rate, paying ticketholders will dip to about 50K within the next three years, putting the race on par with, say, a sold out baseball game instead of the highest-attended sporting event in the state of Alabama. And this audience is for what’s supposed to be one of the sport’s marquee races, no less.

Perhaps the only hope is if Earnhardt keeps his plate racing criticism going, staying public to the point where pressure gets put on the bigwigs to _finally_ find a solution for this 25-year-old plate. But if Sunday didn’t do it…

*Did You Notice?…* Four of the remaining six tracks on the schedule are held at 1.5-mile racetracks? With the championship battle down to three (with perhaps Kasey Kahne as an outlier) it’s a good time to see how these drivers have fared at NASCAR’s “cookie-cutter” intermediate ovals this season:

*Note: Fontana and Michigan (2-mile ovals) were not included in the analysis.*

*Brad Keselowski:* 32nd at Vegas, 36th at Texas, 11th at Kansas, 5th at Charlotte, 1st at Kentucky, 3rd at Atlanta, 1st at Chicagoland
*Average Finish:* 12.7 (2 Wins, 4 Top 5s, 4 Top 10s)
*Laps Led:* 148.

*Jimmie Johnson:* 2nd at Vegas, 2nd at Texas, 3rd at Kansas, 11th at Charlotte, 6th at Kentucky, 34th at Atlanta, 2nd at Chicagoland.
*Average Finish:* 8.6 (0 Wins, 4 Top 5s, 5 Top 10s).
*Laps Led:* 386.

*Denny Hamlin:* 20th at Vegas, 12th at Texas, 1st at Kansas, 2nd at Charlotte, 3rd at Kentucky, 1st at Atlanta, 16th at Chicagoland.
*Average Finish:* 7.9 (2 Wins, 4 Top 5s, 4 Top 10s).
*Laps Led:* 209.

What’s interesting is you can make an argument here for all three. Keselowski may have the worst average finish overall, but notice during the last four intermediate tracks there’s been no one better (2.5). Every time you expect the No. 2 Dodge to showcase a weakness, like at Dover, they’ve blown away expectations, so I think you need to throw those earlier performances, including a surprising 11th at Kansas, out the window. For Keselowski, though, there’s the most pressure, as with Johnson and Hamlin owning Martinsville (and having been through the season-ending nerves of Homestead), he’s likely to lose ground outside of the 1.5-mile ovals. These four tracks ahead are where he needs to pad the lead as much as possible to leave his team a wide margin for error.

As for Johnson, the No. 48 Chevy has clearly been the most consistent across all the 1.5-milers. If not for a late-race wreck with Sam Hornish, derailing a top-5 performance at Atlanta, his average finish would be untouchable. But within those 386 laps led is a troubling trend developing in the No. 48 camp – an inability to lead the last one. In the past two seasons, Johnson has registered a _total_ of just five victories, equaling what Brad Keselowski has accomplished in this season alone. Winning isn’t everything, but when it comes to the Chase, it’s pretty much the only thing that guarantees you a little extra edge down the stretch. Top-3 finishes are nice, but as Carl Edwards found out last season, second is the first loser when your closest competitor winds up winning 50% of all postseason events held on the schedule. What makes things worse for Johnson is he’s coming from behind; 14 points is actually a pretty daunting deficit without the 3-to-5 point guarantee a victory brings to close the gap. Can he do it with a bunch of second-place finishes? I guess. But I’d recommend winning at Kansas, where he’s the defending champ, at the very least.

Can Denny Hamlin return to his inning ways at Charlotte and close the points gap?

That brings us to Hamlin, with the best average finish amongst the top Chase contenders on these types of tracks. So what’s the problem? A bigger deficit than Johnson (23 points) and one place in particular where the No. 11 team has stumbled. Check out Hamlin’s last three races at Texas: 15th, 20th, and 12th. Another performance like that is enough to wipe out any gains that two, even three victories would give him down the stretch. It’s easy to see Hamlin getting that hot, but to get over the hump and into the role of title favorite he must evade the 16th-place, Chicagoland type mistake that seems to haunt him during every postseason run. He’s the man I expect to draw first blood, though; look for the No. 11 to waltz to Victory Lane at Charlotte on Saturday night.

*Did You Notice?…* The weird irony in how NASCAR is treating Kurt Busch? Officials chose not to suspend him again for Sunday’s actions, in which he drove away from a crash scene with safety workers _leaning inside_ the car while dragging their equipment away along with him. Officials’ anger on the radio could be heard loud and clear, feeling like their peers had been disrespected when their job was to ensure Busch and the car were OK.

So let me get this straight; you follow up with no suspension, even though Busch is on probation through the end of 2012. But when a member of the media, someone who isn’t even _employed by you or your tracks_ gets disrespected, Busch immediately gets the equivalent of a one-week prison sentence? Wow. You’ve got to wonder what kind of message that’s sending to NASCAR’s people. How would you feel when your employer is getting busy protecting someone outside the company?

*Did You Notice?…* Quick hits before we take off:

– Yes, Talladega didn’t end the way it should have for Jamie McMurray. But with 38 laps led, his highest total in nearly two years, it’s a key step in the right direction for a program in need of 2013 funding. Earnhardt Ganassi is consistent in that despite Bass Pro Shops leaving, they’ve got sponsors already signed and willing to fill the gaps on the No. 1 car. Yet I seem to remember, a few years ago, their confidence in selling backers for a No. 8 car and Aric Almirola – an effort that was quickly parked after seven subpar 2009 events.

– It’s clearly a do-or-die weekend for Kasey Kahne in the title race (this spring’s Charlotte winner). He’s not a short tracker (Martinsville), has ho-hum results at Texas & Kansas this year and crashed in Phoenix. Expect the No. 5 team to treat it like a be-all, end-all event with him 36 points behind Keselowski heading in.

– Don’t you miss the homegrown, underdog teams that would choose to debut at Charlotte in one-race deals, hoping the right finish or a lucky break could get a backer to sign on the dotted line for 2013? We don’t have any of those “extra,” special entries anymore, the type old promoter “Humpy” Wheeler would put out in the press weeks in advance. Charlotte is the hometown track, yet for many it’s become just another race on the schedule.

When are we going to find a way to make some of NASCAR’s more prestigious races “special” again?

*Connect with Tom!*

“Contact Tom Bowles”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/14345/

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